That William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale attracted so much attention upon its publication may seem surprising. The book had much working against it: it was written by a twenty-five-year-old, was published by then-obscure Regnery Publishing, and concerned itself with the flaws of a single American university. It did not even succeed in its stated mission. Buckley argued that Yale’s alumni should reshape the school’s ideology by withholding donations until it no longer advanced atheism or collectivism. This did not happen, of course; Yale is more secular than ever and its endowment surpasses the GDP of ninety countries.
Despite these obstacles, though, the book did draw attention, and deservedly so. It was the first distinctive broadside from one of the era’s salient thinkers, the man who would help rejuvenate conservatism. Buckley ably fused the causes of Christian traditionalism and economic freedom into an alliance which has undergirded the conservative movement for half a century. The book’s intensely negative reception by the Yale establishment (one trustee likened Buckley to Torquemeda) made him a conservative star, and contributed to the formation of National Review, whose value to modern conservatism is hard to overstate. George Will once said there would be “no Reagan without Goldwater, no Goldwater without National Review and no National Review without Buckley.” God and Man at Yale made Buckley, and as such its influence is larger than anybody could have anticipated.
Thankfully, the book has been getting its due, and last Friday the young William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale hosted a conference commemorating God and Man at Yale’s 60th anniversary. The Criterion’s own Roger Kimball participated in one panel. Created last year by students, the promising Buckley Program is dedicated to furthering intellectual diversity at Yale by giving conservative voices a forum, the same conservative voices Buckley warned were so lacking at Yale. That such an organization is necessary sixty years after Buckley sounded the alarm is unfortunate, but that modern students can still be inspired by this call to arms is encouraging and reflects the book’s power.
An excellent address on Buckley made at the conference by Neil Freeman can be read over at the Wall Street Journal, while another article by Peter Berkowitz reflecting on the book’s meaning can be found at Real Clear Politics.